Lena Ashwell (1872-1957)

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Lena Ashwell (1872-1957)

Lena Ashwell (whose real name was Lena Margaret Pocock) was born on the 28th of September 1872, on board the training ship "Wellesey" on the River Tyne in the North of England. Her father, Commander RN Charles Ashwell Boteler Pocock was captain of the ship, which served as a home for delinquent boys. Her mother, Sarah Margaret (Stevens), was also from a seafaring family. Lena was second youngest of seven children, having two brothers, one of whom died as a child, and four sisters.

When Lena was eight, her family moved to Canada where her father became a clergyman in the Church of England, and the family lived in a wood cabin with few amenities overlooking the St. Lawrence river. Lena attended a government school until the family moved to Toronto, where she was enrolled in the Bishop Strachan's School for young ladies. Lena was an excellent student and always worked very hard at her studies, graduating to the University of Toronto ahead of her age group. A year before that tragedy had struck however, when Lena's mother was killed in an accident. Her father, unable to overcome his grief at the loss of his wife, later gave up his ministry and moved back to Europe with his three youngest daughters (Lena included) to take up residence at Lausanne in Switzerland. There, Lena attended a french speaking school and studied music at the Conservatoire.

Now decided on a career as an opera singer, Lena, against her father's wishes, moved to London where she gained acceptance into the Royal Academy of Music. There, in 1880, she delivered a recitation before the celebrated actress Ellen Terry whose daughter was at the academy. Terry was so impressed with the performance that she convinced Lena her future lay in acting rather than music.

She made her professional debut as an actress at the Islington Grand Theatre on 30th March 1891, playing 'Martin' in "The Pharisee". That was followed by a succession of minor roles at various London theatres as she continued to learn her trade, receiving much help and advice from Ellen Terry who continued to take an interest in her career.

In 1893, Comyns Carr engaged Lena to understudy Winifred Emery in the role of 'Rosamund' at the Comedy - with Lena also gaining experience playing the part on tour. As her experience grew she gained more substantial roles in which she never failed to impress. In 1895, she understudied her some time mentor Ellen Terry in "King Arthur" at the Lyceum, as well as being granted the role of Elaine. Later that year she was a hit as 'Blanche Ferriby' in "Her Advocate" at the Duke of Yorks. The following year she considerably enhanced her reputation playing 'Edward, Prince of Wales' in Sir Henry Irving's production of "Richard III" at the Lyceum - opening on December 19th.

She was now well enough established to be able to pick her parts without having to commit herself to long term contracts. George Bernard Shaw himself described as the "Oh divinely-gifted Lena Ashwell". In 1896 she married the actor Arthur Playfair but the union quickly faltered due to his excessive drinking.

In October 1906, now established as one of the most famous and best loved actresses in England, she embarked on her first tour of the USA, playing in New York, Chicago, Boston and Pittsburgh. For the tour she was billed as 'The Great English Emotional Actress'. On her return to England, whilst continuing to act, she briefly took over the management of the Savoy as a prelude to running her own theatre, the Kingsway (from 1907 to 1915). In 1908, Lena became divorced from her husband and the same year was re-married to Sir Henry John Forbes Simson, who was the royal obstetrician.

Following the outbreak of the First World War, she began to organise companies of professional actors to entertain the allied soldiers in France. These concert-parties were mostly female, relying on temporarily 'recruiting' soldiers or officers to play the male roles in short excerpts from popular plays. By the time the war came to an end, no fewer than 600 artists had taken part in her concert parties, and when the Armistice was signed she had twenty-five such companies 'in the field'. They had played to the troops in France, Malta, Egypt and Palestine, as well as various military camps in England and London Hospitals. In recognition of her work, in 1917, she was awarded the Order of the British Empire. Having gained experience of organising travelling parties of actors and putting on shows with minimal scenery and props, she continued the idea after the war when she started the 'Lena Ashwell Players' (initially known as the 'Once-a-week Players'). Playing in village halls and similar small venues, they would for the next ten years bring theatre to the smaller communities of the London suburbs before being disbanded in 1929 for 'tax reasons'.

In 1919, Lena had been involved in the foundation of the British Drama League, and was one the five vice-Presidents on the committee at the inaugural meeeting on 3rd June 1919. In 1924 she had acquired the Bijou Theatre in Bayswater, renaming it The Century and making it the Central London base for her players. During her tenure at the Century she used it to produce and appear in many new plays.

Throughout life, she was always closest to her brother Roger, who in adult life became something of an adventurer, even at one point being suspected of murder. He was at various times a mounted policman in Canada, a scout in South Africa, and an explorer. He was also the founder of the 'Legion of Frontiersmen', whose Manchester troop sailed to Belgium at their own expense in 1914 to join the Belgian Army and so become the first British troops to fight in the war.

Lena Ashwell was the author of several books, including an autobiography which was published in 1936. She died in London on the 13th of March, 1957.

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